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What to do Before, During, and After a Winter Storm

winter storm prep

The Mountain West region is especially prone to them, but no matter where you live, you are probably going to face extreme winter weather at some point. Winter storms can range from mild to extreme, and sometimes they involve freezing temperatures, wind, snow, ice, sleet, and more. It is a good idea to be prepared for all types of winter storms to ensure you and your family’s safety.

Before a Winter Storm

Before a big winter storm hits, try and be as prepared as you can:

Emergency Kit

Make sure that your winter emergency kit includes the following:

  • Rock salt or other materials to melt ice on the sidewalks
  • Snow shovels and other snow removal equipment
  • Heating fuel – just in case you are trapped in your home and normal heat sources aren’t working. If you have a wood-burning fireplace, make sure you have a sufficient supply of dry wood.
  • Adequate clothing and blankets to keep you warm.

Family Communication 

There’s no way of knowing if your whole family will be together if a bad winter storm hits. Have a plan for how you will communicate, and where you will meet. Make sure everyone is on the same page with your emergency plan.

Stay Up To Date

NOAA Weather Radio will broadcast updates directly from the National Weather Service (NWS) for hazardous weather. You can also sign up for updates from your local emergency services. There are several apps available for emergency preparedness. For example, FEMA’s “Be Smart” or the American Red Cross App will provide helpful information in the event of an emergency.

Know the terms

Freezing Rain – Rain that falls when the surface temperatures are below freezing. It freezes when it hits the ground, creating a coating of ice on roads, walkways, trees and power lines.

Sleet – This is a mixture of rain and snow, often consisting of ice pellets.  Sleet causes moisture on roads to freeze and become slippery.

Wind Chill – Wind Chill is often referred to as “what it feels like” outside. There is a difference between the actual temperature, and the perceived temperature by the human body. Wind chill is important to pay attention to, as colder wind chill decreases the amount of time until frostbite occurs.

Winter Weather Advisory – issued by the NWS when a low pressure system produces a combination of winter weather (snow, freezing rain, or sleet) that presents a hazard, but does not meet warning criteria. In these situations, if caution is used they should not be life threatening.

Winter Storm Watch – issued by the NWS when there is a potential for heavy snow or significant ice accumulations. The watch is usually issued 12-48 hours before the storm’s arrival in the area. Essentially, a winter storm watch means that a winter storm is possible in your area.

Winter Storm Warning – this statement by the NWS means that a winter storm is occurring, or is about to occur in the area; usually within 36 hours.

Blizzard Warning – an advisory that means sustained winds or frequent gusts of 35 mph or greater with heavy snow is forecast for a period of 3 hours or more. Blizzards generally reduce visibility to less than a quarter mile.

Frost/Freeze Warning – Below freezing temperatures are expected.

Beware of Carbon Monoxide Poisoning

Burning any fuel produces carbon monoxide. This means that any fuel-burning appliance in your home is a potential source. Each year, 430 Americans die from unintentional carbon monoxide poisoning, and there are more than 20,000 visits to the emergency room with more than 4,000 hospitalizations. These types of injuries and deaths are highest during the winter months. Be aware of the danger, especially if your power or heating goes out and you are resorting to alternate cooking, heating, or power methods.

Symptoms of carbon monoxide poisoning include dizziness, fatigue, headache, nausea, and irregular breathing.

A few tips to avoid carbon monoxide poisoning:

  • Never use a generator, grill, camp stove, or other gasoline, propane, natural gas or charcoal burning devices inside your home or other enclosed area. Any of the previous units should be used away from doors, windows or vents that could allow carbon monoxide to come inside. Keep them at least 20 feet from doors, windows, and vents.
  • Install carbon monoxide alarms in central locations on every level of your home and outside sleeping areas so that you will be warned if carbon monoxide accumulates near you.
  • Call a certified professional to inspect, clean, and tune up the central heating system in your house and repair any leaks.
  • If your carbon monoxide alarms go off, move quickly to fresh air or by an open window or door.
  • Call for help from a safe location (with fresh air) and remain there until emergency personnel arrive to assist you.

During a Winter Storm

The Basics

In general, be smart. Your safety is the priority.

  • Stay inside during the storm if possible
  • Walk carefully on snow and ice to avoid injury
  • Avoid overexertion when shoveling snow. Believe it or not, overexertion in this kind of activity can bring on a heart attack, which is a major cause of death during the winter moths. Take breaks, and push the snow instead of lifting it.
  • Keep dry. Don’t wear wet clothes – keep them dry to prevent a loss of body heat.
  • Drive when necessary. If possible, drive during daylight, and don’t travel alone. Stay on the main roads and avoid shortcuts.
  • If your pipe’s freeze, remove any insulation and wrap your pipes in rags. Open all faucets and pour hot water over the pipes, starting where they were most exposed to the cold. If you are leaving your home, leave the heat on and set the temperature no lower than 55 to prevent freezing.
  • Conserve fuel if necessary. Temporarily close off heat to unused rooms.
  • Dress for the weather – if you must go outside you should wear several layers of warm clothing. Mittens are warmer than gloves, and you should always wear a hat. Scarves can also help cover your mouth and protect your lungs.
  • If your home loses power or heat for more than a few hours, you may need to go to a designated public shelter (if you can get there safely). You can text SHELTER + your zip code to 43362 (4FEMA) to find the nearest shelter in your area.

Frostbite

Signs – Frostbite occurs when the skin and body tissue just beneath it freezes. You can recognize frostbite by white or pale appearance, especially in areas of the body such as fingers, toes, earlobes face, and tip of the nose. Other symptoms include swelling, itching, burning, and deep pain during the rewarming process.

What to do – Cover exposed skin, but don’t rub the affected area to attempt to warm it up. Seek medical help immediately.

Hypothermia

Signs – Hypothermia is dangerously low body temperature. Uncontrollable shivering, memory loss, disorientation, incoherence, slurred speech, drowsiness, and exhaustion are all signs of hypothermia.

What to do – If symptoms of hypothermia are present, take the person’s temperature. If it is under 95 degrees, seek medical attention immediately. Take the person to a warm location, remove any wet clothing, and warm the center of the body first by wrapping the person in blankets or putting on dry clothes. Give them a warm beverage if they are conscience.

After a Winter Storm

Restock your emergency supplies and be ready in case another storm hits. It may be helpful to assess the last storm and evaluate what you can do better next time. Talk to your neighbors and friends to share tips!